The ferry dropped my wife and I onto a strip of asphalt surrounded by the Atlantic. June sun bounced off the clockwork whitecaps marching in from the horizon. The Buick rumbled into life, aimed West, and we began our wine tour of Long Island.
Marshes widened into fields and homes sprouted from behind tree lines. I had a map, but there were too many wineries for one day. The Finger Lakes and Hudson had taught me that producers who try to please everyone end up pleasing the lowest common denominator. Maybe making wines sweet through dry, out of every varietal, at every price point over-stretches quality control. So I tried to focus on the serious producers: winemakers who grew their own grapes, experimented, or made only a few wines. I failed.
Our first stop was Sparkling Pointe, yes Pointe, that’s with an “e”. This white plastic palace opened before us, replete with travertine floor, svwaroski chandaliered/Rio-themed dance hall, and massive patio facing a sea of vineyards. They only make vintage bubbly, and bottle fermented vintage bubbly at that. The quality was spotless sure. But they know their Manhattanite audience. No bottle was under $30. The tasting fee and aloof staff kept us from buying anything.
This turned out to be the model. Long Island wineries cater to crowds fleeing New York City. And when I mean fleeing, I actually mean being chauffeured, in golden chariots, by tigers. Wineries thus overcharge for counter-side flights or bottles that cute couples or bridal parties can open, while wallowing in their own extravagance before one of the countless sea-view, lake-view, marsh-view, or vine-view patios, accompanied by that day’s soft/folk/classic/jazz rock cover band.
Nonetheless, wine quality was consistent and surprising, as were the range of varietals. I expected the usual suspects for New York’s cool climate: riesling, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, cab franc and the plethora of cold hardy natives, hybrids, and crossings (although those were present). But the Bordeaux-matching latitude and warm ocean seem to keep the frost at bay. That means syrah, sauvignon blanc, camenere, petit verdot et cetera can bud early enough, and ripen late enough for decent crops in warm years.
$20 is the starting point for anything decent. This mainly pays for battalions of computer-controlled stainless tanks, new barrels and Maseratis. What you get is higher levels of cleanliness and less musk, gaminess and underipe fruit. Whites are sterling, although not enough wineries have the will to ferment them dry. Rieslings in all shades of sweetness won the day, but chardonnay and sauvignon blanc surprised us. Most wineries have a token late harvest or sparkling wine, which were fine but expensive. If you like licking wood then ready your tongue, since every red sees new, small, seasoned French oak barrel aging at length. Acidities were surely softened, but in the pursuit of Napa-ness, our mouths were raw and wallets empty.
Our trip was rushed, but a few wines stood out to make it into future posts. Long Island is worth the trip, just watch your cash. Oddly, wineries that started in P stood out from our rushed tour: Peconic Bay, Pelligrini and Palmer.
Reviews of worthwhile Long Island wines will come in the following weeks.
Worthwhile wineries in Long Island: